Karen Cator: Schools Should Get Creative With Spending

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Continuing my conversation with the Department of Education's Director of Education Technology Karen Cator, we talk about how schools can find inventive ways of allotting money for tech tools.

What's your position on creative reallocation of funds in order to pull schools and districts into the 21st century?

We’re going to have to figure out how to reallocate funds. It’s not like we’ll have more money to add on the side. We have to think of our core mission: What are the required elements of building a high-quality, productive education environment? I think that’s the only way to be successful. We have to think of the ways we’re spending money now, and ways we can be more productive.

The productivity section of the National Education Technology Plan gets at the essence of how we can do more, better, even faster with the same amount of resources.


There are some great examples of reallocation of funds. Morrisville School District in North Carolina went through their entire budget and found where they can save money, if in fact, every student had a digital device. Think about what’s on a digital device – you can have a calculator, research materials, maps, writing tools, school binder, calendar, books and content, you can have your assessment.

We can’t think of it as whether we can we buy a device with content instead of a single textbook. It’s more like whether we can we provide a device with all of the tools and resources that students need every single day. And there is a creative way to reallocate funds. For example, we should be able to save on paper doing that, the paper budgets in schools could be used.

One of our problems right now is that we’re funding two systems: a paper-based system and we’re beginning to fund a technology-based system. That’s not sustainable. We have to make the leap to a digital learning environment from predominantly print-based classroom to see both increased improvements in productivity and learning, and to see cost savings that would fund the digital environment.

And to do this, we have to think of it as a system. There are a variety of funding pots that can fund different parts of the infrastructure. There are community-based grants, Department of Commerce grants and agriculture programs that fund broadband build-out. And we have to think of it as a system, with the focus of improving productivity and opportunity for everyone to learn.

How can decision-makers figure out when to invest in a new technology, knowing that it'll change again quickly, whether it's an iPod Touch, or an iPad, or another e-reader? How can they know it's worth the investment?

I totally understand that. It’s a risk whenever you move into new environment, and in education we’re pretty risk averse. But I do understand the sentiment.

Karen Cator

But we can’t focus on devices, then we get attached to something that’s fleeting. Whether it's going to last for four or five years, or whether there will be something better, it’s just the way technology evolves. We need to focus and clearly articulate on what we want students to be able to do.

We want them to write and to write better, and be able to edit, and have the tools of writing. We want them to read, to leverage tools of the text that the screen can provide, which is much more enabled than text on a page. We want students to do research, to find data sets online, the tools, the stimulation, the assessments. If we focus on those things, the actual device becomes less daunting. Because today, it’s one device, and it might be another one tomorrow. But whatever devices we have are going to enable students and teachers to do those things that we clearly say we want them to be able to do. And that's when we’ll feel better about our decisions.

And if we focus on what we want them to be able to do, that actually doesn’t change as frequently, and that isn’t like technology. It just becomes a more enabled environment.

I think we’ll see some people experimenting with a variety of other strategies as well, potentially welcoming devices that students can bring from home. If we can begin to have that kind of mine/theirs/ours types of devices, then a couple things might happen. One, the support is more distributed, because students are empowered and responsible to support their devices, and second, the funds that school districts have can go further. And bottom line, you can get closer to having a more productive environment and increase opportunity for all students.

[Here's the first part of our interview.]